Over the past several years, universities have witnessed the expansion of extreme ideological movements, which have influenced policy and procedures, thereby exposing the points within academia that are vulnerable to social pressure. The day of absence incident at Evergreen State College in 2017 left many people wondering how such irrational viewpoints could have been instilled in students, resulting in such an anger-fueled display—and others wondering how the university could have allowed its faculty to display such racist prejudice. I initially dismissed these actions as stereotypical rebellions against authority, driven by youthful angst, but, after my first couple of semesters at college, I began to notice a striking resemblance between the structure that fosters these beliefs and a structure that I studied for many years, during my time in the military. The answer to how such radical ideas could get so out of control resides in the structure itself: the structure is more network than organization.
In the mid-2000s, the US military found itself in an unfamiliar position, facing an unfamiliar enemy. Their opponent did not have a country to defend, they did not have uniforms, a headquarters, a staff or an organizational structure to speak of. Our military’s methodical planning process, which decides which enemy infrastructure, personnel and terrain to dismantle in order to reduce the enemy’s capabilities was less effective against terrorist groups than against typical militaries. They knew that they must better understand the structure of their opponents in order to defeat them.
To gain insights, they turned to cultural anthropologists to learn about the differences between organizations and networks. Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network (HQN) are not organizations, which assign roles and responsibilities to all their members, but networks, which rely upon individual relationships to accomplish tasks. It did not make sense to analyze typical positions and roles, determine the most vulnerable point in the structure, and pick apart their network. The only way to dismantle the network was to understand each individual relationship, and determine who, personally, would be the greatest loss to them.
Such structures are incredibly complex and typically occupy various points on a sliding scale between networks and organizations. I am obviously not comparing the actions of university ideologues to the those of the Taliban. But I would like to draw attention to the specific structural dynamics that allow erratic ideas to proliferate, due to the lack of regulatory policies to lessen group-think and promote universality. Both networks and organizations have their advantages and disadvantages: neither structure is good, when taken to extremes.
An organization is a structure whose existence is maintained through overarching doctrines, policies and/or procedures. Positions within organizations carry specified duties. Each individual has only a limited ability to change the dynamics of the entire organization through the execution of her role. If that individual is removed from her position, the position itself remains and someone else will be assigned to it.
A network, on the other hand, maintains its existence through the skills, knowledge and relationships of the individuals within it. There may not be any specific roles, duties or limitations governing the day-to-day conduct of its personnel. A network is not organized around a hierarchical structure, but around the preexisting relationships of those within it. As a result, there are typically few or no doctrines or procedures regulating conduct.
A true network is a free-for-all that cannot be contained; a true organization has strict policies and lacks the ability to change. If we apply these concept to forms of government, a pure organization would resemble communism, in which each person is assigned a role in life and is not allowed to question the structure; a pure network would resemble anarchy, with zero oversight and each individual able to decide on his role, changing it whenever he sees fit. A constitutional republic forms the middle ground: constitutional rights ensure that the masses cannot take away the rights of the few, but democratic procedures ensure that people have the power to change policy. These concepts have specific, predictable positives and negatives, and can be applied to almost any social structure. Even the internal dynamics of college departments.
During my fifteen-year career in the US army, I especially enjoyed working as the senior instructor on the Psychological Operations Qualification Course. I got to teach and mentor soldiers on an educational path, leading them from a basic understanding of the work involved to becoming a qualified member of a regiment, ready to deploy all over the world. It wasn’t about forcing my views on impressionable youth, but carrying out a process, in order to accurately portray doctrinal knowledge to students who were eager to gain the tools necessary to accomplish their missions. I could make the required information more palatable, but the information itself wasn’t mine to choose.
Organization-based education has a distinct starting point, a distinct end point and benchmarks to accomplish along the way. It is developed using a reverse planning process that begins by evaluating the critical tasks each student must be able to accomplish in order to pass the course. Outside of the military, these might be called goals, competencies or outcomes: they are the mechanism that structures the course. The skills and knowledge needed to properly execute these tasks are then determined, and the task procedures and the course training package developed. Along with an informational outline, there is a student evaluation plan, consisting of objective examinations and requirements, linked directly to the material, that each student must satisfy in order to graduate. An organization is constructed around established guidelines and policies; organization-based education is constructed around approved doctrine provided by the proponent of the discipline—not the individual educators.
To ensure that my instructor team wasn’t overstepping its bounds and injecting subjectivity into established procedures, we developed two overarching guidelines. The first was that, if a student can pass the course without taking it, then the course is not properly constructed. This ensures that the evaluation measures are properly tied to the instructional material, and that no one is being graded for something that wasn’t taught. The problem this was meant to fix is commonly seen in writing classes. If some of your grade points for a paper come from formatting, then the task you are being graded for is the use of Microsoft Word. If this was not taught in the class, and was not a prerequisite, then your preexisting knowledge earned you your grade. If you lose points because you don’t know how to use Microsoft Word, your evaluation is dependent upon something that you were never taught. A few points might not seem like a big deal, but the less regulated the structure, the larger the margin for error.
The second guideline was that, if a student can fail because of an instructor, the student is not to blame. My team of instructors and I spent countless hours ensuring that grading rubrics, including those for analytical papers, were as objective as possible: if two instructors grade the same paper simultaneously, they should both assign the same grade. This has a couple of important implications. First, it ensures that no student is discriminated against by any instructor, for any reason. Second, it ensures that the student is evaluated solely on the course material and not on the instructor’s subjective thoughts about what the material should contain. The uniform, organization-based structure of our educational process promoted fairness for everyone involved.
One of the challenges of this type of education is updating it regularly, so that its procedures can keep up with the demands of an ever-evolving world. Since individual instructors can’t immediately incorporate new, beneficial tactics, there tends to be a lag before new information can be included. In order to update information, lessons-learned reports are compiled by practitioners outside the educational field. These individuals annotate the results they get from executing the doctrine in practical settings. The results are analyzed, and, if necessary, recommendations for improvement are made. Much like the scientific process, the information starts from a proven baseline and changes are made only after extensive testing has been conducted. This prevents the incorporation of untested material and prevents the choice of material from being influenced or corrupted by personal opinion.
Applicable testing is an important part of organization-based education. If qualified members are not sent away from the institution to evaluate the validity of the doctrine, it may fall into the track of group-think, just as network-based education often does. Harmful ideological shifts can occur if no one can question the doctrine. However, an organization that separates knowledge from opinion will protect against the in-group, radical, identity-based ideologies that are growing more prevalent on college campuses all over the country.
When I left the army, I was incredibly excited to move on to collegiate education. I was eager to see how professionals, who create and execute curricula as a career, conduct their courses and lead students down an educational path to enlightenment. Since universities are the most important education system in the country, I presumed that their goal would be to provide students with the most objective education possible. Since they are accredited, I thought that the material being taught would be similar regardless of where I went. My journey wasn’t meant to lead to a new career. I was instead, in a sense, conducting an ethnographic study of my own.
Over the past three years, I’ve attended a technical college, a mostly online state college and a major university. I’ve seen small group, hands-on training conducted by instructors who have just left the workforce; online classes designed such that students have to read books and write papers, under the supervision of a faceless guide; and auditorium-style lectures, full of young adults, where most of the interaction was with a teaching assistant. All these approaches rely on the individual in charge, rather than the educational information. Syllabi, outcomes, evaluation measures, delivery methods and even the existence of the course itself all revolve around a single person. To my surprise, grading rubrics that tied the evaluation to the material were rarely used, and whether or not the student was deemed qualified to pass was a judgment call.
After attending a class on culture for a few weeks, I asked to speak with the professor in order to clarify several ideas that had been presented during his lectures: the one-page syllabus did not specify the outline of the class. His lectures were very philosophical, mostly relating to what happens after death, and I wanted to understand how something so subjective could be taught under the umbrella of science. He informed me that, as a tenured professor, he takes more liberties than others.
Another instructor I had was obviously struggling to deliver lectures. In what I assume was an outburst of frustration at his own failings, he threatened the class that he would read the PowerPoint slides to us, unless we started doing better on the exams. This led to a discussion with the dean, who informed me that the instructor had been hired from the workforce three weeks before the start of the semester: the teacher had no idea how to teach. I was amazed to find that the dean blamed the instructor for his shortcomings, instead of taking responsibility for training his subordinate. A month had passed since the start of the semester and not a single person had even come in to observe this brand new instructor’s performance. I do not understand why the individual is deemed more important than the education he provides.
No education system is perfect. I’m not here to pass judgment on individuals: I want to highlight the fact that these individuals were left with little oversight. A network can function more efficiently than an organization, if proper individuals are empowered, but its potential is solely based upon the individual. I had several very intelligent professors, who truly cared about how they were molding the future of America, and gave students the most accurate, objective information possible. These professors actively attempted to keep their personal opinions separate from their instruction, and used validated course material as a form of oversight, to reduce subjectivity. This added a level of credibility that those who constructed their courses around personal narratives could not achieve.
Certain fields have this kind of oversight built in. The physical sciences and all the STEM fields are not driven by opinion and theory, but by objective reality. If a student does not solve a mathematics problem correctly, the problem is not solved; if a computer program is not correct, the program does not work. No professor can interject their opinion and convince the student that the failed attempt was successful. These fields have a form of physical validation that overrides the instructor, and blocks ideologically derived successes.
Certain fields within the humanities, which focus on cultural or identity studies, however, use social validation. An elder teaches a young student. That student appeases the elder and receives a favorable grade. The student continues to study under the elder as an assistant. The student proves to a board of similar elders that she is capable of following the path that has been set for her, all the while maintaining the ideological narrative that has been deemed official. The student then becomes the elder, and the cycle continues. This is the equivalent of ideological natural selection, in which favorable beliefs are maintained, while those which go against the majority opinion die off.
Although networks are better able to keep up with changing times, evolve and allow for the expression of free thought, they are also more liable to be corrupted by individual viewpoints. Many fields of study have no practical applications and therefore lack the essential component that puts aspects of the theory to the test in order to determine its validity. When the evolution of knowledge relies solely on internal, social validation, without ever being tested by external forces, not only is the knowledge vulnerable to ideological corruption, but one might ask: is it even knowledge?
This might seem very inconsequential. Why not let imagination flourish? After all, some brilliant ideas have arisen from these very disciplines. The problem is that this is the only educational system we have, and its validation determines individual livelihoods. There are no other establishments allowed to give out the certifications that employers require, and, in a credentialist society, these certifications are essential if one wishes to provide for oneself and one’s family. If we consider these ideological networks to be equivalent to their objective counterparts, and allow them to thrive, it will eventually prove detrimental to society. The young adults who hunted down professors at Evergreen State College possess the credentials required to assume the next leadership positions within the nation. But their certificates do not come from a standardized organization that aims to provide an objective education that would be beneficial to us all. They were granted by an ideologically driven network, whose aim is to preserve itself above all else.
Thank you for your insight. I am a professor at a small community college near Evergreen State College and have been for over twenty years. Without really knowing it, I have been a close witness to a shift from an organization-based education system to a network-based one. The campus that I began teaching at was a fun and happy place twenty years ago. We exchanged ideas, disagreed, etc. Now most people are afraid to talk to each other out of a fear that they might offend and be mobbed.
I will share this with my colleges and I expect I will be mobbed. Thanks.